Adventures of Chevalier de La Salle - John S. C. Abbott

Life Upon the St. Lawrence and the Lakes Two Hundred Years Ago


About two hundred years ago, a young man, by the name of Robert de la Salle, crossed the Atlantic to seek his fortune in the wilds of Canada. He was born on the 22nd of November, 1643, in the city of Rouen, the ancient capital of Normandy, France. He was the child of one of the most distinguished families, and enjoyed all the advantages of social and educational culture which the refinement and scholarship of those times could confer. He was by nature a thoughtful, pensive young man, whose soul was profoundly moved by the unsearchable mystery of this our earthly being. In very early life he found, in the religion of Jesus, a partial solution of the sublime drama of conflict, sin, and sorrow which is being enacted on this globe, and which has no solution whatever but in the revelations of the Bible.

Born almost beneath the shadow of the great cathedral of Rouen, and of an ancestry which from time immemorial had been the children of the Catholic Church, and instructed from infancy by revered ecclesiastics of that communion he almost as a matter of necessity accepted Christianity as presented to him in the ritual of the Church of Rome. Nature had endowed him with a restless, enterprising spirit, which led him eagerly to plunge into those wild and perilous adventures from which most persons would have turned with dismay.

La Salle received an accomplished education in one of the best seminaries in Europe. Upon graduating, he received from the professors a testimonial of his high intellectual attainments and his unblemished moral character. About the year 1669 he sailed from France for Canada. His object probably was to accumulate a fortune by the barter of European commodities for the furs and skins obtained by the Indians. He pushed forward to the frontiers, established trading houses, and in the well-freighted birch canoe, explored remote lakes and rivers.

At that time the whole of the great northwest of this country was an entirely unknown land. No one knew whether the continent was one thousand or ten thousand miles in breadth. It was the general impression that the waves of the Pacific were dashing against the rocks a few miles west of the chain of great lakes which fringed the southern shores of Canada. La Salle was meditating an expedition up the St. Lawrence, through the majestic chain of lakes to Lake Superior, from the western end of which he confidently expected to find easy communication with the Pacific Ocean. There he would again spread his adventurous sail, having discovered a new route to China and the Indies.

There was grandeur in this conception. It would entirely change the thoroughfare of the world's commerce. It would make the French possessions in the New World valuable beyond conception. This all-important route, between Europe and Asia, would be under the control of the French crown.

M. Frontenac, an ambitious and energetic Frenchman, was then governor-general of Canada. He entered cordially into the plans of La Salle, conferred frequently with him upon the subject, and was sanguine in the expectation that, by this great discovery, his own name would be immortalized, and he would secure the highest applause from the Grande Monarque, Louis XIV.

As early as the year 1660, the Indians had reported, at Quebec, that many leagues west of the great lakes there was a wonderful river, the Great River, the Father of Waters, the most majestic stream in the world, flowing from the unexplored solitudes of the wilderness in the north, far away into the unknown regions of the south.

One day a birch canoe, with a little band of hardy, wayworn voyagers, French and Indians, came paddling down the swift current of the St. Lawrence and ran their boat upon the beach where the little cluster of dwellings stood, called Quebec. They brought the startling intelligence that Father Marquette, a great and good man whom all knew, had discovered the Great River, which the Indians called the Mississippi, and had followed down its majestic current for hundreds of leagues, until he had reached the thirty-third degree of latitude. He had ascertained, beyond all question, that it emptied its flood into the Gulf of Mexico. This important discovery, it was claimed, gave to the French, according to the received law of nations, the whole valley of the Mississippi and its tributaries, however great that valley might prove to be.

This intelligence was received with every demonstration of public rejoicing. It gave, as it was supposed, to France a new world of boundless resources. The garrison band played its most exultant airs. Salvos of artillery echoed along the majestic cliffs. There was feasting, dancing, and singing, and the spacious church was thronged with worshippers praising God with the national anthems of Te Deum.

This great event gave a new impulse and a new direction to the ambition of La Salle. He at once conceived the idea of establishing a series of military and trading posts along the whole length of the lakes, and upon all the important points of the great river and its tributaries. But even then he was but little aware how magnificent was the realm which these tributaries watered. He would thus, however, in the name of the King of France, take military possession of the whole territory.

Governor Frontenac gave his most cordial approval to the gigantic plan. His own mind was greatly excited by the thought of the grandeur of a chain of forts extending from the mouth of the St. Lawrence to the Gulf of Mexico. He urged La Salle to go immediately to France, seek an audience with the king, lay the plan before him, and seek the royal patronage. The renowned Colbert was then minister of finance and marine. The governor furnished La Salle with letters to the minister which would secure for him a respectful reception.

La Salle, a penniless adventurer, recrossed the ocean. It was the year 1675. His plan at once attracted attention, and he was cordially received by both minister and king. The courtiers rallied around him with much enthusiasm. The king, having honored him with the title of chevalier, authorized him to rebuild, on the shores of Lake Ontario, Fort Frontenac, which was falling to decay, and invested him with the office of seignory or governorship of the fort and its adjacent territory.

The sublime plan which La Salle thus proposed, could only be carried into execution by the continuous labors of many years. La Salle returned to Canada full of bright dreams for the future. For more than two years he was employed in rearing the walls of Fort Frontenac and improving the region around. This important post occupied a commanding position near the eastern extremity of Lake Ontario.

At the close of the year 1677 he again returned to France, to report the progress he had made. His reception by the court was even more cordial than before, and he received from the king new honors and more extended privileges. On the 14th of July, 1678, he sailed from Rochelle for Quebec. He took with him an Italian gentleman, by the name of Tonti, as his lieutenant, and a party of thirty men. After a two months' voyage, they landed at Quebec on the 15th of September. Then, paddling up the swift current of the St. Lawrence, they passed the little cluster of log-cabins surrounded with Indian wigwams at Montreal, and after a voyage of between three and four hundred miles reached Fort Frontenac.

This was indeed a post far away in the wilderness. It was strongly built, with four bastions on the northern side of the entrance to the lake, at the head of a snug forest-fringed bay, where quite a fleet of small vessels could be sheltered from the winds.

It was a very curious spectacle which was then witnessed upon this remote frontier of civilization. The unbroken wilderness, where wolves howled and bears roamed, spread in apparently unbroken gloom in all directions. The fort rose in quite massive proportions, enclosing within its palisades a number of cabins, which the garrison occupied, and which were stored with goods suitable for traffic with the natives. There was a small green meadow spread around, which was covered with wigwams of every picturesque variety. Groups of Indians, of various tribes, were moving about. The warriors were painted and plumed, and many of them very gorgeously attired. Women, young and graceful girls, and little children, were clustered around the camp fires, some with busy hands usefully employed; others shouting and sporting in all the varieties of barbaric pastimes.

It was an instructive scene, emblematic of this fallen world. The frowning fort, with its threatening armament, proclaimed that sin had entered the world with its war and blood and misery, making man the direful foe of his brother man. The crystal stream and lake; the azure of the overarching skies; the bright, serene autumnal day; the foliage, the verdure, the picturesque wigwams; the peaceful employments of the women, and the sports and shouts of the merry children, showed that our ruined Eden still retained some of those glories which embellished it before man rebelled against his Maker.

La Salle, on his return from Europe, in the autumn of 1678, had brought with him a select company of sailors, carpenters, and other mechanics. At Quebec a number of Canadian boatmen joined him. These men he sent forward to Fort Frontenac, which was now virtually his castle, with the surrounding territory his estate. The boats were heavily laden with all articles for trading with the Indians, and with all the essentials for building and rigging vessels. He soon followed them, in an open birch canoe, with one or two companions. It was a long and perilous river voyage, paddling up the swift current of the St. Lawrence between its thousand islands, struggling against its rapids, and seeking for the eddies along its lonely forest-fringed shores. Several times they came near being wrecked, with inevitable death.

At the close of the day it was always necessary to run the canoe ashore, to land and encamp. But with hardy men, fond of adventure, these were pleasures rather than pains. With their axes, in half an hour they could construct a sheltering camp. A brilliant fire would dispel all gloom, with its wide-spreading illumination. The fragrant twigs of the hemlock furnished a soft couch. Here they cooked their suppers, sang their songs, told their stories, and, free from all care, probably experienced at least as much pleasure as is usually found in parlors the most sumptuous.

Indian villages were quite profusely scattered along the banks of this majestic river. The scene was often quite exciting as the canoe of the voyagers approached one of these clusters of picturesque wigwams in the evening twilight. The Indians were fond of the song, and the dance, and the blaze of the bonfire. The whole expanse of river, cliff, and forest, would be lighted up. Shouts of barbaric revelry echoed through the sublime solitudes. And the warrior, the squaw, and the pappoose, flitted about in all the varied employments of savage life.

In these Indian wigwams, at night, the voyagers almost invariably found hospitable refuge. The Indians were generally friendly. The traffic which the French traders introduced was of inestimable value to the poor savages. And even those who were disposed to look with suspicion upon the encroachments of the white men, were overawed by the thunderings and lightnings of their death-dealing muskets. There were fishes of delicious flavor in the stream, and game in great variety upon the banks. These viands, with the food they took with them, furnished breakfasts and suppers which they deemed even sumptuous.

The fort was reached in safety. On the 18th of November, La Salle sent a small vessel of ten tons burden, with a deck, to go to the farther end of Lake Ontario, a distance of about two hundred miles, and to ascend the Niagara River until the falls were reached. The vessel contained about thirty workmen, with provisions and implements for erecting a fort and building a vessel beyond the falls at the extreme eastern end of Lake Erie. Having ascended the river as far as possible, they were to transport their effects along an Indian trail, in the wilderness, several miles above the falls and the rapids, until they reached comparatively still water at the opening of the lake. Here, in mid-winter, they were to construct their fortified magazine, and build a vessel for their vast inland tour through almost unknown seas, in search of the distant Mississippi.

Even then this continent was so little known that many supposed that the Mississippi emptied into the Pacific Ocean, and that thus the long-sought-for route to China would be found.

Only about ten years before, in the year 1669, La Salle, on an exploring tour with a party of missionaries in birch canoes, had discovered these falls. M. Galinee, in his journal of the expedition, writes:

"We found a river one eighth of a league broad, and extremely rapid, forming the outlet from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario. The depth is extraordinary, for we found close to the shore, fifteen or sixteen fathoms of water. This outlet is forty miles long. It has, from ten to twelve miles above its embouchure into Lake Ontario, one of the finest cataracts in the world. All the Indians say that the river falls from a rock higher than the tallest pines. We heard the roar at the distance of ten or twelve miles. The fall gives such momentum to the water, that its current prevented our ascending, except with great difficulty. The current above the falls is so rapid, that it often sucks in deer and stags, elk and roebuck, endeavoring to cross the river, and overwhelms them in its frightful abyss."

This is the earliest description of the falls on record. At this time nearly the whole of the present State of New York was a dense, unbroken wilderness. It is very evident, that among the Indians there were, as in every community, good men and bad men. But on the whole, the condition of humanity among the savages must have been dreadful. What are we to think of a state of society in which every man's reputation and distinction depended upon the number of human scalps, torn from the slain victims by his own hands, with which he could fringe his garments?

On this tour La Salle visited the Seneca Indians in Western New York, where the beautiful cities of civilization and Christianity now adorn the landscape. Here they witnessed one of the most tragic spectacles of savage life.

Some warriors arrived in one of the villages with a prisoner. He was a finely formed young man, about nineteen years of age, from the Shawnee tribe residing near the Scioto River. They had clothed their victim for the sacrifice. Anxious that he should endure the torture as long as possible, they had treated him tenderly, that his bodily strength might not be weakened. He had been given, according to their custom, to an aged Indian woman, in place of her son who had been killed. It was at her option to adopt him or to cause him to be put to death by torture. She chose the torture.

The young man was taken into a cabin adjoining that which was occupied by La Salle and Galinee. The two Frenchmen visited him in the evening. Three women were wailing the death of their relative who had been killed, and were heaping imprecations upon the victim through whose tortures they hoped to avenge the death of the one who had been slain. The Christians pleaded earnestly for him, and offered large rewards to obtain him as a guide to conduct them to the Ohio. All was in vain.

At the earliest dawn of the next morning, a group came rushing into La Salle's cabin to announce that the torture was about to commence. They went out and found the victim entirely stripped of his clothing, and so bound to a stake that he could move for a distance of two or three feet. The whole band—men, women, and children—were gathered exultingly around, to enjoy the cruel pastime. The poor boy well knew what he had to undergo, for he had probably often assisted in similar scenes.

M. Galinee was slightly acquainted with the Algonquin language; he could hold some conversation with the captive. The victim, pale and terror-stricken, entreated the Frenchmen to intercede for him, that his execution might be postponed until the next day. Again they renewed their efforts to save the boy. They offered to pay a large amount of their most valuable effects for his ransom. But the Indians shook their heads and said, "It is our custom: he must die."

A large fire had been kindled near by. In it there was a long gun-barrel heated to a red heat. An Indian warrior, a staid, sober man, came forward with much dignity of manner, and taking the red-hot gun-barrel pressed it upon the soles of the victim's feet, and moved it slowly up his legs. The skin and flesh smoked and crackled under the terrible infliction. The agony was such that the poor boy could not refrain from loud shrieks, and he was thrown into the most convulsive contortions.

The savages—the stern men, the women, the girls, the boys—were delighted. As they listened to the shrieks and witnessed the agonizing struggles of their victim, they clapped their hands, and danced and shouted in fiend-like exultation. The heated iron was passed over his whole body, from the sole of his feet to the crown of his head. There was not a spot left which was not blistered and roasted. And still they carefully avoided touching any vital point, that the horrible torture might be continued as long as possible.

For six hours this poor creature endured every variety of agony which diabolical ingenuity could inflict. I will not continue the narration. It is too harrowing to be contemplated. But it is needful to go thus far to show what the Indians were without the Gospel. Galinee writes:

"At length they knocked him down with a stone, and throwing themselves upon him, cut his body in pieces. One carried off his head, another an arm, a third some other member, which they put in the pot to boil for a feast. Many offered some to the Frenchmen, telling them there was nothing in the world better to eat; but no one desired to try the experiment.

"In the evening all assembled in the public place, each with a stick in his hand, with which they began to beat the cabins on all sides, making a very loud noise, to chase away, they said, the soul of the deceased, which might be concealed in some corner to do them injury."

This scene took place in Western New York, a mile and a half west of Boughton Hill, but about two hundred years ago. Surely the religion of Jesus has improved the condition of humanity.

La Salle and Galinee, unable to endure the spectacle, retired, in anguish of spirit, to their cabin. "As I was praying to God," writes Galinee, "and very sad, La Salle came and told me that from the excitement he saw prevailing, he was apprehensive that the Indians might insult us, and that we had better return to the canoes." Hastily they retired.

But let us return from this digression. La Salle joined his companions at the head of Niagara River, on the borders of Lake Erie, on the 29th of January, 1679. The river, above the falls, was a sheet of ice, resembling a plain paved with fine polished marble. While many of his men had been employed building a vessel to be launched upon the lake, others had boldly explored all the surrounding region, purchasing of the Indians furs and skins. The winter was intensely cold, and the snow was deep. There was a small cluster of Indian wigwams on the Niagara River below the Falls.

The Indians, men, women and children, received La Salle and his party even affectionately. They took the strangers into their warm cabins, spread bear-skin couches for them, to sleep with their feet toward the fire, and fed them with their daintiest bits of game. White-fish were taken in great abundance at that place, and were deemed in flavor equal to the golden brook-trout. The floating ice endangered their brigantine. The Indians aided with infinite labor in dragging it to a safe place upon the beach, just below those towering cliffs which fringe so large a portion of this wild river. This spot was near the present site of Queenstown, on the western side of the stream.

All the goods were to be transported through a trail of the forest, encumbered with snow, around the falls, a distance of about twenty miles, on the shoulders of men. The Indians, with fraternal kindness, aided in these herculean labors, and were amply repaid for days of toil, by a knife, a hatchet, or a few trinkets, as valuable to them as are diamonds and pearls to a duchess. La Salle constructed a fortified depot at this place, to serve as a base for future operations. Here he could store such additional supplies as he might order from Fort Frontenac. Strange as it may seem, it appears that he could leave priceless treasure in a frail log-hut, thus far away in the wilderness, under the protection of the Indians themselves. And yet these very men and women, had La Salle been captured in battle, would have shouted and leaped for joy in seeing him writhing and shrieking beneath fiend-like tortures. Such is fallen man. He is the ruin of a once noble fabric. But many fragments of his former grandeur still remain. There is no philosophy, save the religion of the Bible, which can explain these discordances.

On the 20th of January, 1679, La Salle, with his long train of heavily laden men in single file, reached his large log-cabin and ship-yard in the midst of a dense forest on the shore of Lake Erie. They brought upon their backs provisions, merchandise, ammunition, and materials for rigging the vessel. The dock-yard—it could hardly be called a fort—was about six miles above Niagara Falls, on the western side of the river, at the outlet of a little stream called Chippewa Creek.

The men there had been employed in erecting their hut, cutting ship timber, and preparing the ground for building their vessel. There were many Indians continually visiting them. La Salle, the very week of his arrival, laid the keel of his vessel, and with his own hand drove the first bolt. He had no thought of encroaching upon the lands of the Indians, or of erecting any forts in antagonism to them. The object of his expedition was solely to make discoveries in the name of France, to establish trading stations for the purchase of valuable furs of the Indians, and to erect throughout the region he traversed military posts, over which the banners of France might float, which would prove that by the right of discovery, the region belonged to France and not to England. The foe to be guarded against was the British Government, not the Indian tribes.

With characteristic sagacity, La Salle summoned a council of the chiefs of all the neighboring tribes, and addressed them in substance as follows:

"I come to you as a friend and a brother. I wish to buy your furs. I will pay you for them in guns and powder, knives, hatchets, kettles, beads, and such other articles as you want. Thus you can do me good, and I can do you good. We can be brothers. I am building a vessel, that I may visit other tribes, purchase their furs, and carry to them our goods. Let us smoke the pipe of friendship, and shake hands. The Great Spirit will be pleased to see us, His children, love one another and help each other. I wish to establish a trading-post here, where I can collect my furs, where you can come to sell them. And here you will find mechanics who will mend your guns, knives, and kettles, when they get out of order."

These were honest words. They were convincing. All smoked the pipe and grasped hands in token of fraternity. The Frenchman was a benefactor, not an enemy. His life was to be carefully protected. Should he, from unkind treatment, refuse to come to their country, they could buy no more guns, or knives, or kettles. Henceforth every wigwam welcomed the entrance of a Frenchman.

La Salle, while engaged in building his vessel, despatched several canoes along each shore of Lake Erie, to visit every Indian village and purchase their furs. Indian friends paddled the canoes and acted as interpreters. The arrival of one of these canoes at an Indian village was an occasion of universal rejoicing. Happy was the chief who could be honored by entertaining the white trader in his wigwam. The Frenchman was in no more danger in moving about amid their dwellings and forests, than he would have been in traversing the boulevards in Paris.

A poor Indian would bring in some rich furs, to him scarcely of any value, but worth ten dollars in London or Paris. He would receive in exchange a strong, keen-edged pocket-knife, worth in London or Paris perhaps half a dollar, but to him worth ten times ten dollars. He would go home to his wigwam so happy that he could scarcely sleep. He would show his almost priceless treasure to his wife, his children, his neighbors. Accustomed to shave down his bow and arrows only with such an edge as a hard stone could afford, he was filled with inexpressible delight as the keenly cutting steel performed its wondrous work.

The young lady of wealthy parents may rejoice when the grand piano first enters her father's parlor. The fashionable matron may feel some degree of exultation as she regards the splendor of her newly furnished reception-room. But their joy was as nothing compared with the delight with which an Indian woman, for the first time in her life, hung a stout iron kettle over her cabin fire.

La Salle named his vessel the "Griffin," as that animal was one of the emblems on his family coat-of-arms. During the winter, while the vessel was on the stocks, circumstances required the presence of La Salle at Fort Frontenac. Promptly he set out for a journey on foot of three hundred miles through the snow and the woods. Two men accompanied him. A strong dog dragged a portion of the baggage on a sled. Wherever night overtook them they hastily constructed their camp, built their fire, cooked their supper, wrapped themselves in furs, and fell asleep. He seemed to think no more of such a journey than a gentleman does now of a trip, in cushioned cars, from Boston to New Orleans. But nothing in this world ever goes smoothly a long time. In every man's life it may be said,

"Storm after storm rises dark o'er my way."

Several boats laden with supplies bound from Frontenac to Niagara were lost in tempests on the lake. This caused great embarrassment. Provisions even became scarce. The laborers would have suffered for food but for the services of Indian hunters who brought in deer and other game. The fur trade was becoming a matter of great importance. There were many private traders and companies engaged in the traffic, who were alarmed in view of the magnitude of the operations contemplated by La Salle, and of the monopoly which had been granted to him by the king. Here again we see the dark side of human nature. These men, Frenchmen, nominal Christians, endeavored to rouse the Indians against La Salle, even to burnings and massacres. They said to the savages:

"La Salle wishes to take possession of your whole country. He is building a fort at Niagara, and another at Erie. He is building a large vessel, that he may explore all your distant lakes and large rivers. He will erect his strong forts upon every commanding spot. These forts he will garrison with armed men, well provided with muskets, and big guns whose roar is like that of thunder. Then he will take your lands and bring in white men by thousands, and you will all be killed or driven away.

"Your only safety is in destroying the forts at Niagara and Erie, and in burning the vessel he is building, before it is launched. We will not trespass on your lands. We will build no forts. We will bring to your villages, in our canoes, all the goods you want and will buy all your furs. Thus you will be in no danger."

These plausible representations alarmed the Indians. Some of them visited the encampment, and with a suspicious eye watched all the movements. There were two parties formed, the friendly and the unfriendly. La Salle was embarrassed. He might be attacked. His little handful of men would need a strong fortress for their protection. But to strengthen his works would confirm the fears of his foes and add to their number. An Indian woman revealed to him a plot to set fire to his brigantine on the stocks.

He kept a careful watch, ordered all his men to be secretly ready for a surprise, and pushed forward the building of the vessel with all vigor. Early in April the vessel was launched. The sublime Te Deum resounded through the solitudes of the forest as thanksgivings were offered to God for the success of the enterprise thus far. Prayers were breathed forth that God would guide and bless the vessel and its crew. The vessel was moored at a safe distance from the shore. All the men swung their hammocks on board their floating fortress, and were quite secure from any intrusion of the savages.